Why do we use Sanskrit when teaching Yoga?

sanskrit

As Iyengar instructors, the very first thing we teach students about the pose is its name in Sanskrit. If the word is complicated like say Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana*, we break it down piece by piece. Why in the world do we do this? Are we yoga snobs? Why not just say an approximation of the pose in English leave out the Sanskrit, and be happy with that?

First of all, Yoga originated in India at a time when Sanskrit was widely used. It is the original language of all the major yoga texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Just like French is the language of fine cuisine, Sanskrit is the language of Yoga. That may not matter to someone who just takes Yoga at the boutique studio down the street, but if you travel around the world you will be grateful to hear the familiar Sanskrit words that you have learned from your Iyengar instructor.

Yoga has had quite a journey from its origins. When B.K.S. Iyengar first started teaching Yoga, he said he had very few students. Yoga was viewed at the time like something one’s eccentric grandfather did many years ago in adhering to antiquated traditions. That is when Iyengar decided to take his Yoga teachings to the West which was hungry and ripe for his teachings. While spreading Yoga in the West, Iyengar stayed rooted in India to recharge Yoga as a cultural treasure for its country of origin. Just months before his passing, Iyengar was recognized by the President of India for his work in Yoga. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently led the UN and the world in the first International Yoga Day.

Instructors who take the extra pains to learn the Sanskrit words present themselves as more serious about the subject. When I hear what some people are calling Asana-s, I feel a twinge in my belly. Wild Thing, Happy Baby, and Chair Pose have no basis in Sanskrit, they are words that come from the fitness-yoga craze that is the majority of yoga we see now in the West. I got berated one time when I corrected a person who was calling Utkatasana “Chair pose.” I pointed out that it is translated as “awkward or fierce pose.” It surprised me how strong of a reaction people had about saying something incorrectly.

pranava

As Western practitioners, we must respect Yoga’s origin and language. Sanskrit is beautiful and easily lends itself to chanting and devotion. Sanskrit has a vibrational quality that transcends merely speaking a language to communicate. Yoga Sutra 1.27 states that the Pranava, or the sound “OM” is the source of all sounds of the universe and Yoga Sutra 1.29 states that deep meditation on this sound will lead to one’s realization. What English word does all that?

*Triangamukaikapada Paschimottanasana is translated as three parts facing one leg intense stretch of the West side (posterior) part of the body pose. It looks like this in stage I.

triangmukhaikapada paschimottonasana

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9 thoughts on “Why do we use Sanskrit when teaching Yoga?

  1. Aparna

    I teach at a boutique yoga studio that is located in the heart of suburbia in North Carolina, however I wholeheartedly agree about using Sanskrit in yoga classes. It’s honoring the roots of where it came from. Actually, my students like it when I use Sanskrit – they like hearing the name of the asana. I typically use both English and Sanskrit because I usually have someone in class who is new to yoga and I don’t want them to feel excluded in anyway, but I never shy away from using Sanskrit words. I do notice that with repeated use of the words, my regulars become familiar with the meaning and they know where to go when I say Uttanasana or Virabhadrasana I/II/III, etc. I do have a bit of an advantage though because my mother tongue is based off of Sanskrit and therefore it’s easier for me to pronounce the names of the poses. However, I really appreciate all yoga teachers who do make an effort in saying the words and respecting the roots 🙂

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      That’s great Aparna! If your mother tongue is close to Sanskrit, then it is even more your heritage than mine. And what a proud heritage that must be. As yoga teachers, we teach. That means teaching Sanskrit. Sometimes I get loose with my words and sound critical of “boutique” yoga. I am just trying to create awareness that yoga is far beyond what we have seen in the West. It sounds like your classes are more on the classical path than a lot of other “styles” I see out there. I always appreciate your readership and comments Aparna.

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      1. Aparna

        No worries – I did not take any offense to the words boutique yoga 😉 I too am quite aware that yoga in the West sometimes loses some of the core essence of what yoga is all about 🙂

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  2. Vishvanand

    You have stated that :
    “Sanskrit has a vibrational quality that transcends merely speaking a language to communicate. Yoga Sutra 1.27 states that the Pranava, or the sound “OM” is the source of all sounds of the universe and Yoga Sutra 1.29 states that deep meditation on this sound will lead to one’s realization. ” ,
    is true & further Sanskrit uses conjunctions , संधि , to make a word more meaningful yet keeping it short. Similarly Chinese words & names are retained while learning acupuncture, so as names of judo/karate throws.

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  3. aruffini

    Reblogged this on Montreal Yoga and commented:
    I think this is some interesting information! I, too am pro-Sanskrit. It really is such a beautiful language, it’s worth taking the time to learn if you’re a serious Yoga teacher or student. It definitely makes you look more advances and professional!

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  4. JRD

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article. I find Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana quite a mouthful and my students look quite beffudled sometimes! Have you read Mark Singleton’s book on the origins of modern postural yoga? It gives a interesting perspective and challenges some common assumptions. Well worth reading imho.

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